Thursday, October 27, 2016

András Schiff Piano Recital in Taipei 2016/10/26

Time: 2016/10/26 (Wednesday), 19:30-22:40 (approximately)
Venue: National Concert Hall, Taipei
Performers: András Schiff
Program: (in the order of performance)



What a wonderful concert!

Sir András Schiff has been my touchstone of Bach performance on piano for many years(*1). What is so special about Schiff's Bach? Besides supple touch and immaculate tone production, which many top pianists share, he revolutionized Bach performance on piano by fusing the Historically-Informed Performance (HIP) practice with the expressive devices belonging exclusively to the modern grand pianos. Combined with uncanny ears and touch, Schiff's Bach performance is truly peerless.

How so? First, Schiff's elucidation of the counterpoint is unrivaled, not even by harpsichordists with rigorous musicological training. The purists will chide me for allowing Bach's solo keyboard music be played on a modern piano. I love harpsichord performances of these works too: from Wanda Landowska to Davitt Moroney and 
Pierre Hantaï....; they have long inhabited my music shelves and musical life. Many of them are truly wonderful. However, on a good modern grand piano, Bach's n-part counterpoint can have n different tone colors, if played under masterful hands. In terms of this, Schiff is still unsurpassed (IMO).

Second, musicologists, historians and period-instrumentalists have been (re)searching and exploring for decades the "affective ways" to play polyphonic music on harpsichords (clavichords, virginals) by subtle rubato, different articulations, varieties of touch, and rhythmical independence of the parts, partly to offset the lack of the expressive devices only available to the modern grand pianos: the broad range of dynamics and the infinite varieties of tone color shadings. What Schiff pioneered is to fuse these two, and the result is a unique combination of countrapuntal clarity and mesmerizing

Enough of my rambling. Now, for this concert, the opening piece was the Italian Concerto in F. To my surprise, Schiff started the piece with slightly rushed tempo, compared with his better-timed recorded performance, and Schiff's golden tone was not completely there in the first few bars. Fortunately, as it moved to the second movement (in d minor), he was back to good form. Still, this was not Schiff at his best.

Fortunately, after a long pause, (during which Schiff did not leave the stage,) his magical touch was back in the second piece. I was completely captivated by his French Overture in b from start to finish. Each part was perfectly balanced, each tone perfectly produced and each musical phrase organically born in relation to its predecessor and giving birth to its successor. Every moment of the French Overture performance was a masterclass of exemplary taste!

After the intermission, we are treated with the monumental Goldberg Variations. The mathematical intricacy of the Goldberg has been well documented. There are 30 variations flanked by the aria and aria da capo, 32 in total. The aria itself has 32 bars, divided into 16-bar halves. The variation technique is based on the ground bass, upon which the foundation of the whole structure are based. Ralph Kirkpatrick sketched out the base line as follows.

The tonality is consistently G major, with the exception of g minor in Variations Nos. 15, 21 and 25. Then the 30 variations are divided into 10 groups of three. Each group contains a general character piece (e.g., Baroque dances in Variations 1, 4, etc.), a brilliant virtuoso piece ("arabesque" in Var. 2, 5 etc.) and a strictly polyphonic canon (in Var. 3, 6 etc.). The canons are presented in a sequence of increasing intervals, starting with a canon in unison (Var. 3) and ending in a canon in ninths (Var. 27). The final variation (30), instead of a canon in the tenth, is a quodlibet, combining folk songs with the ground bass.

Schiff observed all repeats, but no repeats were identical. Tasteful ornamentations were added in the repeats, except in the aria da capo, where the ornaments were removed to the "unadorned" form. This created symmetry, as Bach must have intended. Indeed, Schiff's command of the architecture at the smaller scales was as impressive as his concept of the structure of the whole piece. The way he led us from one variation to the next, or paused in anticipation of the upcoming variation, was masterful. His supple touch created buoyant, dazzling and pensive music in turns, with golden and constantly varying tone colors. What a magisterial performance!

After about 75 minutes of sheer delight, in response to the enthusiastic audience, Schiff played Beethoven's entire Piano Sonata in E, No. 30 as the first encore piece.(*2) The audience went wild! He then followed it with the first movement of Mozart's Piano Sonata in C, No. 16, K. 545, Schubert's Impromptu in E-flat, D. 899 (Op. 90) No. 2 and Brahms's Intermezzo in E-flat Major, Op.117 no.1. There you had it, a mini-survey of Austro-German musical heritage in a nutshell.

After the concert, already at 22:45, it was announced that an autograph signing session would take place shortly. Unfortunately, the line was so long that Ping and I had to leave without thanking Sir András in person, even though we had prepared a CD for him to sign.... I was told that the signing lasted until half an hour before midnight. 

The only drawback, if any, of this recital was the relatively smaller audience, (the hall was about three quarters full,) compared with other recitals I have been. Does Taiwanese audience not know Sir András Schiff well enough? Surely the music critics and piano teachers can do a better job in promoting this recital, can't they? On the flip side, the audience there consisted only "true fans". Almost all stayed past 22:30 to sit through all encores and to thank Sir András with thundering applauses.

Thank you, Sir András, for the wonderful recital, surely among the most memorable in my concert-going experience!

(*1) My family can attest to that, having been listening to him "involuntarily" on CD and DVD for years. Fortunately, they all love Schiff! :)

(*2) The only more "generous" encore I heard of along this line was the famous story of young Rudolf Serkin. At his Berlin debut in 1921 Serkin performed in Adolf Busch's ensemble as the keyboard soloist in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. At the end of the concert, Busch told Serkin to play an encore to the enthusiastic audience. When Serkin asked Busch what to play, Busch "as a joke" told him to play the Goldberg Variations. "When I finished", Serkin later recalled, "there were only four people left: Adolf Busch, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Einstein and me." Fortunately, though, Serkin did not play repeats, so it lasted only about 45 minutes.

1 comment:

  1. A great blog on the magnificent concert, which I was fortunate enough to be present.